Traditionally the third Sunday of Advent, which in 2020 falls next Sunday, has been celebrated as Ministry Sunday. The lectionary readings normally include a Gospel reading relating to John the Baptist, although whether the solo ministry of John is a good model for ministry today is debateable! In The Book of Common Prayer another reading is from 1 Cor 4.1-5, where Paul, equating “the ministers of Christ” with “stewards of the mysteries of Christ”, goes on to say “it is required in stewards that a man be found faithful” (AV). As a result on this Sunday churches have prayed for ‘the ministry’; ‘theological colleges’; and ‘retired clergy’. So I thought it would be fitting in this blog to look at ministry – and by this I refer in the first place to the ordained ministry – as Christ’s gift to his church. To do so, I will reflect on Paul’s teaching in Eph 4.7, 11-12: ”Each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift… The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (NRSV).
In the first place we learn that all God’s people have been gifted by Christ for service. Unfortunately, this is not clear in the NRSV and NIV which speak of “grace” (charis) having been given to all. However, this “grace” is not the gift of salvation, for saving grace cannot be doled out in different measure. Rather Paul refers to the differing ‘gifts of grace’ God gives his people, which elsewhere he called ‘charismata’. So the GNB translates: “Each one of us has received a special gift in proportion to what Christ has given”. Similarly the REB: “Each of us has been given a special gift, a particular share of the bounty of Christ”. Every Christian, says Paul, is a gifted individual. Or, to use the NT expression, each one of us is charismatic!
In this context of ‘every member ministry’ Paul goes on to speak of ‘the leadership of some’. Unlike Rom 12.6-8 and 1 Cor 12.7-10 where gifts are listed, Paul speaks of those who have been gifted to lead God’s people:: “The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers” (Eph 4.11). Christ has given to his church people who will serve as leaders.
There are “apostles and prophets”. As Eph 2.20 makes clear, they were the first leaders of the church. The church is built upon the apostles, who were witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus, and upon the prophets were inspired by God to expound the significance of Jesus to the first Christians. These ‘foundational leaders’ were unique and are not found in today’s church. True, the New Testament speaks of a gift of ‘prophecy’, but this form of ‘speaking God’s Word’ is not to be confused with the role exercised by ‘the (note the definite article) prophets’.
In addition God has given – and still gives – two other types of leaders: “the evangelists”, on the one hand, and “the pastors and teachers” on the other hand (in the Greek there is no separate definite article before the word “teachers”). The evangelists may have been pioneering itinerants, who moved from town to town. By contrast pastors seem to have been settled in one place, looking after one or more local house churches. The word ‘pastor’ literally means a shepherd: just as a shepherd leads the flock and ensures that the flock finds pasture, so in God’s church pastors not only exercise leadership, but also ensure that those in their care are fed from the Word of God. Here pastors are not different from teachers: rather pastors teach (by contrast, not all ‘teachers’ are ‘pastors’).
In some quarters great play has been made of how these so-called ‘orders of ministry’ apply to God’s church today. However, to my mind there is a more important principle, viz. Christ gives leaders to his church. In turn this means that the church needs to honour the leaders who Christ has given. I suggest we honour them by following their lead (unless conscience otherwise dictates) and by encouraging them to fulfil their differing roles.
According to Paul, a key role of leaders is to multiply ministry, rather than monopolize ministry – for as we have seen, all are gifted for service (the Greek word translated ‘ministry’ is diakonia, service). God gave leaders “to equip the saints for the work of ministry” (NRSV) or in the words of the GNB “to prepare all God’s people for the work of Christian service” (Eph 4.12)
Equipping or preparing every member for service is vital to effective Christian ministry and mission. This comes out in the Greek verb (katartizo) found here. In the context of surgery it was used of the setting of broken bones: from this use we can perhaps infer Christ gives leaders to ensure that the structures of the body of Christ are set aright – but where Christians are not using their gifts for service, then the church becomes like a ‘cripple’ unable to do any useful work. The same Greek word in the context of fishing was used of mending nets: from this we can infer that Christ gives leaders to help God’s people to ‘fish for people’ – but where Christians are not using their gifts, then the church will have as much success in winning men and women for Christ as people seeking to catch fish with gaping holes in their nets!
On this Ministry Sunday we are called to remember that we are all gifted – and that a key role of those whom God has given to his church as leaders, and not least those leaders who are ordained, is to enable God’s people to fulfil their calling too.